Classic Collaborations: James Ivory looks back on his 50-year career
For over 50 years, James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala made films together under the Merchant Ivory brand, including such classics as A Room with a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day and Shakespeare Wallah. In celebration of the Cohen Media Group’s re-release of Heat and Dust, Director Talk interviews James Ivory on his life in cinema and longtime collaboration.
Director Talk: You and Ismail and Ruth made films together for fifty years. Can you talk about your collaborative process? How strictly were the roles defined as producer, director, writer?
James Ivory: They were strictly defined: Ruth wrote, I directed, and Ismail did everything a producer needs to do—raise the money, make sure the film is released properly and publicized and all that. Our roles were quite defined, though I sometimes collaborated with Ruth on the screenplay. She certainly never ventured into the areas of producing or directing.
DT: Did you edit together?
JI: In a way. What we used to do was sort of unheard of. After we had a fairly organized rough cut and we’d screened it for ourselves and for her, she would come into the editing room and help us pull it together better. She considered that as part of her writing job. She wasn’t actually editing, but she saw things that she had seen in her imagination that hadn’t gone well during the shoot. Actors we’d had high hopes for weren’t as good as we thought they would be, or the reverse was true also: Some actors we weren’t going to feature were absolutely wonderful and we thought we had to make room for them, they were so good. Or I made mistakes. Generally we would pull it all together, and she would be in the editing room for about a week doing that.
The editors, far from being dismayed by this, were really pleased that she was there. This was a way of working that’s absolutely unheard of in Hollywood. Probably in Europe, which is more auteur-driven, writers probably did make other appearances, but that’s the way we worked, and that’s what we liked to do. And sometimes—this was something Ismail would get into very much—when Ruth would come in and we’d work on the rough cut with her, it would encourage him that maybe we needed something else here and there; perhaps we should have a scene of such-and-such. In fact, we did this with practically every film. We would have a secret shoot…we never, ever told the financiers about this. And we never told them that’s how we always worked—Ismail put money aside and we’d get the actors and go off and do some more. There would be some places in the film that needed things, and we’d just do it.
And that’s how we worked. It was very collaborative, the three of us, but we did have quite distinct roles.
DT: How much did you discuss a project together before you started shooting?
JI: Quite a lot. Again, it depended on whether or not I was collaborating with Ruth on the screenplay. We talked about it a lot. We would talk wherever we happened to be—at a meal, in a taxicab, wherever, just as the thoughts came to us. It was never any sort of formal sit-down-discussion sort of thing. This just gradually came about. Of course, Ismail weighed in a lot, because as a producer he had certain concerns about what we were thinking. There was a lot of talk. But then that’s true of any collaborative work of art. I mean, there’s lots and lots of talk about it.
DT: You’ve said that a director is wide and shallow, while an actor is narrow and deep. You’ve also talked about how you “watch the actor.” Can you talk about how both of those things apply to how you work with an actor?
JI: When I say that an actor is narrow but deep, I mean an actor is primarily concerned with bringing out his or her role. Creating a role through some process of their own, based on their own experiences, and things they’ve observed in life and their own thoughts, they manage to put together a character, and I think it goes very, very deep into their consciousness and subconscious. They are creating a person out of their own experience that really only exists in fiction, and it’s not like what a director does. The director has to have an interest in a million different things, but he can’t go deep into any of them, because he has so many different things to contend with—the photography, the weather, whether or not a set is OK or not OK, or maybe an actor who was going to play a role doesn’t play it and someone else comes, all the rest. A director is spread thin. This has to be; you couldn’t be as engaged in all of those things as an actor is engaged in creating his or her role, and that’s why I say a director is sort of shallow. I mean, a director can have certain strengths in various areas. Some directors are marvelously strong when it comes to producing the image and the photographic side of things, or they can be marvelously strong in editing, or whatever. We all have our strengths and we all have our weaknesses, and I’m speaking now as a director. It’s like that, really. Directors have a lot to think about, but an actor really only has his or her role to think about.
DT: So would you describe yourself as basically hands-off when you work with an actor?
JI: At first, yes. I believe in allowing an actor to show me what it is he or she has created. They have to do that before anything else. They have to show me what it is they want to do. If they seem to be going astray in any area, I would get in there and steer them in the direction I wanted them to go. But on the whole, they’re artists, after all, and you have to respect what they’ve created. You want to see it and know what it is before you comment for better or for worse. That’s the way I work, and that’s the way I think you should work.
And it doesn’t just apply to acting. It applies to other areas in film. It applies to music, it applies certainly to set design and costumes and so on. They have to show you what it is they made and you have to respect that. They are artists also. Wait to see what that is, and hopefully you’ll like it; usually I did like it. But sometimes of course I didn’t, and in some cases I’d rather cautiously say, “I think maybe a little bit more of this and less of that” sort of thing.
DT: Would that take place while you were shooting, or did you rehearse in advance?
JI: It could certainly take place during shooting. Not so much where sets and costumes are concerned, those things are already there—even in photography, really, but certainly in the interpretation, in the acting. If you don’t like something, you have to speak up, but you have to wait to see how they wanted to do it. I believe you owe the actor that. It happens all the time, from the beginning to the end of shooting, you’re always in that situation. You’re never not facing that.
As far as rehearsals are concerned, we principally rehearsed every scene on the day we were going to shoot it. We didn’t go in for big rehearsals because very often we couldn’t get all the actors together. That’s the problem with movies—the actors are off doing another film or maybe they’re in a play, or whatever. They’re not all there at the same time, and you can’t really have a decent rehearsal unless everybody is there. The only film we really had the luck to have everybody present was Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. We had absolutely everybody there, including the two kids, so we could have two weeks of proper rehearsals like most people like to have, most directors are very happy to have, and the actors certainly want to have.
DT: Speaking of performances, you get particularly extraordinary performances from male actors, like Christopher Reeve in TheBostoniansand Julian Sands in A Room with a View.
JI: They are very different actors. Christopher Reeve was a highly trained actor and also worked on the stage, and he believed in doing a lot of homework. Julian Sands had only just begun to act. It was pretty much off the cuff with him, but he was just right for the part and memorable. It depends on the actor. Some of them are very, very experienced and know how to do all kinds of research. Christopher Reeve got together with some ex-politician from Mississippi in order to get that accent. He worked on it for weeks and weeks.
DT: He was wonderful.
JI: He was, and very much underrated, I thought. People were so used to seeing him as Superman that they couldn’t accept him in a sort of Rhett Butler role, which is what he was playing, basically. They couldn’t accept that. The same thing happened with Paul Newman as Mr. Bridge. Everybody loved their version of Paul Newman—all of his movies were so popular—and the idea that he was this stern, rather unrelenting and somewhat puritanical father figure was hard for people to take.
DT: One thing that I love that you do—it’s so subtle but it’s so great—you have the camera focused on the main action, but you have other people moving on and off the screen, in front of the action, behind the action, on the side of the action. It’s almost as if you want the audience to never forget that there’s life going on outside the frame. I didn’t know if that was intentional or not.
JI: It’s hard to achieve that, let me tell you. If you look at my earlier films, you don’t always get that idea, but it really comes about if you have very, very experienced and very good first assistant directors. The assistant directors have to concentrate on all of the side action that’s happening, and some of them are very, very good and subtle and some are not at all. But I can’t think about that very much or worry about it. If I see something—say on the first take I see people doing something off on the side that I don’t like, or I think they could be better used in some other part of the shot—I say something. Sometimes I go right out on the floor and move people around myself. That has happened, but on the whole if you have very, very good assistant directors who are good at that kind of thing, it’s a relief. For me, anyway.
DT: You’ve said that your early influences were Satyajit Ray and Jean Renoir. What did you like about their films, and how did they influence your own directing?
JI: That’s a very big question. I liked Ray’s films so much because I discovered Ray at the time I discovered India, and he was the foremost, really the only, Indian director at that time that a Westerner could really enjoy and get something from. I loved his films, and then I came to know him, and I see his influence still, even after he’s been gone twenty years now. I see his influence in my work in little, little ways that most people probably wouldn’t see.
I was lucky that with our very first film, I had his entire crew. We made The Householder, our first feature, in India. Ray wasn’t making a film at that time, and I wanted to borrow his cameraman, Subrata Mitra, who was a great, great cameraman. We didn’t have a cameraman, and Ray said, “Yes, of course, take him.” Subrata wanted to do it, but then Ray said, “Nobody else is working for me right now,” so I got them all—his assistant director, soundman, cameraman, cameraman’s assistant. They all came to work for me, and it’s not surprising that there’s a look to the film, and one or two of the other Indian films, that reminds one somewhat of Ray. Not so much the content—the content was very different—just the way the scenes are put together and photographed and so on.
As for Renoir, well, Renoir is a very great European director whom I’ve always admired, as Ray did.
DT: Me too! You fell in love with India, but you also fell in love with Venice, where you made your first film. ARoom with a Viewis one of the most romantic films I’ve ever seen. Do you think that your feeling for Italy affected that film in particular, and do you think that happens generally—that your feeling for the location somehow affects the way the film turns out?
JI: I think so, sure, otherwise why are you there? Why are you in that particular location? You like being there, and you want to have it as a backdrop to your story. Where Italy was concerned, Venice was the first Italian city I ever went to and spent any time in, and I was just bowled over by it. From there I went to Rome, and I had equally strong feelings about Rome. But strangely, for some reason, and this went on for several years, I never visited Florence. I don’t know why, maybe it just seemed like such a huge correctional thing to see and do that I just felt I would wait and put it off to some other day. So when I came to do the film in Florence, yes, I already had very, very strong feelings about Italy, but when I came to do Room with a View, Florence was all new to me, and I was seeing it with a fresh eye. I think that was useful, that I was discovering Florence myself when we made that film. I didn’t know it, and I had to learn the city in the same way that I learned Venice and Rome, and I think it certainly shows in the film itself.
DT: Are you participating in the Cohen Media Group’s restorations of Heat and Dust, Autobiography of a Princess, Howards End, Mauriceand Shakespeare Wallah?
JI: Oh yes. I have been, and I expect to go on doing that. My actual technical participation isn’t so great. The most I can do is sort of sit there with the cameraman and regrade the picture for color and darkness or lightness and so on. We do that together. That’s about as much as I can do, because I can’t get involved in the sound. On the whole I’m limited to being there with the cinematographer, and we make sure that the color is right and the contrast is right, it’s not too light or dark—that sort of thing. Beyond that, I get very much involved in the packaging of the films, and when they’re released, I do a lot of press. I get involved to the extent that they allow me to be involved in the advertising campaigns. They usually don’t want directors to get involved in that because perhaps we’ll suggest some uncommercial things.
DT: Do you choose which films are going to be restored?
JI: In some cases, yes. I suggested that if they were going to do Heat and Dust, they needed to restore Autobiography at the same time because both films are very related in subject matter. They’re also going to go in a DVD package, probably on two discs. But I think that everybody agreed that they would start out with Howards End. Next they moved to Maurice, and then they wanted to go back to one of our earliest films, considered a classic, which is Shakespeare Wallah. I go along with what they want to do, but I do make suggestions sometimes about the order of things. So far, so good.
DT: And what’s going on with Richard II?
JI: I don’t know. I mean, I lack a very good producer, I lack a powerful producer. My regular producer, Ismail Merchant. I don’t have that. Had I had such a person, I think the film would have been made years ago. The pity is we didn’t make it while Ismail was still alive, which we might have done. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s out there, and people are still sort of supposedly thinking about it, but I wonder, really, what will happen.
DT: I really hope it’s made. Are you continuing to donate your films to the George Eastman House?
JI: They have pretty much everything. They don’t have the studio films. They have prints and that kind of thing, but the studios almost always keep their negatives to themselves on the whole. I donated the films that Merchant Ivory actually owned, which was more than thirty, but as I say, the studios hold onto the films that they made, like Remains of the Day. They keep their things in their vaults, where I’m sure they’re properly cared for, the right temperature and all that. But we do have prints of all of our films, and we had a lot of secondary material that accumulated over the years, whether those are studio films or not, and whenever there was anything interesting, I put it at George Eastman.
DT: How involved did you get in casting your films?
JI: Very. I’m the one that says yes or no. It’s interesting, though, because sometimes Ismail would jump in there and surprise me and cast somebody himself if he was getting fed up with my not being sure about this person or that person. He did that several times, but who was to complain, because he came up with people like James Mason or Maggie Smith or Helena Bonham Carter. Who’s to complain?
DT: Wasn’t Emma Thompson in that category also?
JI: I found Emma.
DT: How did you find them? From other movies? Onstage?
JI: Not in Emma’s case. Emma was suggested to me by Simon Callow. He suggested that I find out more about her. When they were casting Howards End, I might have seen one film that she’d made, it might even have been something for television. She came to me and she obviously wanted to do it. She’d read the script, but she didn’t have the script with her when she came to read for me, so she read straight out of the novel, and that was it. Some of the other actresses who had come that day were quite big names, but she got the part on the spot.
DT: Speaking of that, you said that when you’re doing an adaptation, your actors sometimes carry the novel around with them on the set.
JI: We discouraged that. We actually pulled the novel out of their hands. The last thing you want is to be in the middle of a scene and the actor says, “You’ve left some dialogue out. I just love this dialogue and I want to say it.” That’s the last thing you want on the set. I don’t mind if they read other novels on the set. That’s fine. I feel very lucky, because that’s how I discovered Remains of the Day. An actor was reading Remains of the Day while we were making Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. One day he came up to me and said, “I’m reading this book that I think is sort of boring, but I think you may like it.” He gave it to me to read, and I couldn’t put it down. It wasn’t the next film but the film after.
Heat and Dust opened today at Quad Cinema, New York City, and the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles. To learn more about Merchant Ivory, click here. The author thanks Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2017